Audi A4 vs BMW 3 Series Comparison

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Who builds the best 2.0-litre diesel executive saloon – Audi or BMW? We’ve tested them back-to-back to find out

The contenders

*** Note : £1 = $1.40

Audi A4 2.0 TDI 190 S Line S Tronic (leather/Alc)
  • List price £36,695
  • Target Price £32,662

Audi no longer sells the front-wheel drive, 3.0-litre diesel A4 that we recommended, so here we’re trying the 2.0-litre diesel

BMW 3 Series 320d M Sport step auto
  • List price £36,760
  • Target Price £33,898

The 320d remains one of the best executive saloons around and a tough test for any car – even the award-winning A4

Audi A4 vs BMW 3 Series

In 3.0-litre diesel form, the Audi A4 won our Executive Car of the Year Award two years in a row, with its smooth and efficient engine one of the best things about it. However, the A4 is no longer available with this unless you also have Audi’s quattro four-wheel drive system, which pushes up CO2 emissions – and tax bills – to a level that will put off many company car drivers. So, is the 2.0-litre diesel model a good alternative?

Well, to find out we’re pitting it against a rival that’s long been the fleet manager’s favourite – the BMW 320d. Both test cars are in the sporty trims that most buyers choose.

What are they like to drive?

The 2.0-litre diesel engines in these executive saloons produce identical amounts of peak power and torque, with the latter available from just 1750rpm.

That low-rev pulling power means both cars provide similarly effortless acceleration in relaxed driving, although the A4 feels gutsier when you put your foot down hard and was ultimately quicker against the stopwatch in all of our acceleration tests. This is probably a result of it being the lighter car, although the fact its seven-speed automatic gearbox reacts more snappily to kickdown requests than the eight-speed ‘box in the 3 Series also helps with high-speed overtakes. Mind you, the BMW’s ‘box is slightly smoother in traffic and when parking.

Both cars resist body lean well through corners, but the rear-wheel-drive 3 Series is more fun on a twisting B-road than the front-wheel-drive A4 thanks to its more playful handling.

The A4 counters with steering that weights up in a more natural way than the overly heavy optional Servotronic set-up that was fitted to our 3 Series test car, although both cars can be placed with precision.

Both cars ride more firmly than they do in cheaper trims, although you can opt for an A4 S line with comfort suspension for no extra charge; we’d recommend doing so. More sophisticated adaptive dampers are optional on both cars, which allow you to vary the stiffness of the suspension by pressing a button. Our test 3 Series had these whereas the A4 didn’t.

Switch the BMW’s adaptive suspension to Comfort mode and it’ll take the sting out of most rutted surfaces and offer a settled ride at motorway speeds. Our Audi dealt well with speed bumps but was a little too firm to dial out small undulations as effectively, which meant it fidgeted more, particularly on the motorway.

That said, the A4’s interior is that bit quieter. Its engine is considerably smoother than its rival’s and there’s far less wind noise and marginally less road noise at speed.

What are they like inside?

Audi A4 dashboard

Historically, Audi has been the master of the well-appointed interior, but rather than rest on its laurels it’s really pushed the boat out here. The finish is exquisite and the switches feels almost aviation-grade in quality; the rotary heater controls have a particularly satisfying precision. Mind you, after BMW’s most recent upgrades there’s little wrong with the 3 Series interior, beyond Audi setting the bar even higher.

Both cars have decent driving positions, although the pedals are offset slightly to the right. Otherwise, the ergonomics are sound and forward visibility is good. The view behind in both cars is more limited because of thick rear pillars, but they both come with rear parking sensors.

The front seats in the 3 Series have larger side bolsters that grip you tighter in corners, while the A4’s standard lumbar adjustment offers better lower back support. There’s plenty of head and leg room in both, but the A4’s interior is slightly wider and feels more airy.

Audi and BMW make the best infotainment systems on the market today. Both have crystal-clear screens with excellent graphics, navigated via a simple rotary controller by the gear levers. Ultimately, though, the 3 Series system just edges it thanks to snappier responses and slightly more intuitive menus.

Despite Audi emphasising the extra room offered by its latest A4, the saloon still can’t quite match the rear leg room in the 3 Series – although it’s still fine by class standards. Both have reasonable rear head room, but if you’re much more than six feet tall you’ll find your head brushing the ceiling.

You wouldn’t want to be three abreast for long in the back of either, though; there’s a distinct dearth of shoulder room, and the middle passenger has to straddle a high central tunnel and sit on a firmer, raised seat.

Both boots have 480-litre capacities; that’s good enough to fit a large suitcase with room to spare. However, the A4’s load bay is squarer with a very usable one-metre width throughout, while the one in the 3 Series narrows towards the rear seats. You also have to pay extra for split-folding rear seats in the BMW; Audi gives you these as standard.

What will they cost?

Audi A4 side

If you’re a business user there’s hardly anything in it. Leasing costs over three years with a limit of 10,000 miles per annum are exactly the same, at £391 per month. And over the same period you’ll pay just £275 less in company car tax if you choose the Audi A4.

Similarly, these cars are priced within a few hundred pounds of each other, and while our Target Price figures suggest that the gap widens significantly in favour of the A4 after discounts, you can make bigger savings on the BMW 3 Series if you buy through What Car?’s online new car buying service. If you prefer the finance option, meanwhile, the A4 comes out cheaper by £14 per month, on a three-year, 10,000-mile-per-year PCP deal.

The A4 sits two insurance groups lower than the 3 Series, and servicing costs over three years and 12,000 miles will also be lower – by around £500 – but the A4 will cost you around £300 more in fuel. For private buyers paying cash, just a few hundred pounds separates the total cost over three years, the 3 Series coming out more favourably.

Equipment levels are broadly similar. Essentials such as satellite navigation, a DAB radio and Bluetooth are standard in both, as are luxuries such as climate and cruise controls. However, the A4 bolsters this with rear climate control and xenon headlights, while the 3 Series gets full leather upholstery, and the A4 part-leather, part-Alcantara.

Euro NCAP awarded both cars a five-star crash safety rating. Meanwhile, security experts Thatcham concluded that both cars were equally secure, scoring top marks for guarding against theft, and four out of five for resisting being broken into.

Disappointingly, neither the Audi or BMW scored particularly well in our most recent reliability survey. However, both cars come with a three-year warranty; there’s no mileage cap on the 3 Series, whereas Audi limits you to 60,000 miles.


Audi A4 and BMW 3 Series

The latest Audi A4 matches the BMW 3 Series, pound for pound, in many areas, while just sticking its nose in front in terms of quality, refinement, and the fact that safety kit such as city braking is included as standard. Both cars are very good, but as an all-rounder, the A4 is just that little bit better and easier to live with.

1st – Audi A4

  • For Exceptionally refined; high-quality interior; strong performance
  • Against Inferior real-world economy; less rear leg room; Sports ride firm
  • Verdict Easy to live with and a great all-round package
Specifications: Audi A4 2.0 TDI 190 S Line S Tronic (leather/Alc)
  • Engine size 2.0-litre diesel
  • List price £36,695
  • Target Price £32,662
  • Best What Car? deal £32,269
  • Power 188bhp
  • Torque 295lb ft
  • 0-60mph 7.9sec
  • Top speed 147mph
  • Fuel economy 67.3mpg
  • CO2 emissions 111g/km
2nd – BMW 3 Series

  • For Fun handling; excellent infotainment; slick gearbox
  • Against Road noise; optional Servotronic steering; poor brake feel
  • Verdict Still the most fun to drive, but just loses out in this guise
Specifications: BMW 320d M Sport step auto
  • Engine size 2.0-litre diesel
  • List price £36,760
  • Target Price £33,898
  • Best What Car? deal £31,148
  • Power 188bhp
  • Torque 295lb ft
  • 0-60mph 8.0sec
  • Top speed 143mph
  • Fuel economy 64.2mpg
  • CO2 emissions 116g/km




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